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Rating: 5 out of 5.

I have been evacuated from a country twice in my life.

The first time, and by my estimation the worst, was following the assassination of a number of American diplomats. I won’t disclose all the details, but they were traveling in an armored car that was ambushed outside of an American embassy. My friend’s father was killed in that car.

My dad was in another armored car a few minutes behind. A few more stoplights and that would have been my father. Our family was evacuated a few days later. Our belongings were packed by someone else and shipped weeks later. The friends I had made there I never saw again.

For years I would get panicked when going to the airport, or with any form of traveling. I had difficulty making friends because there was a good chance that I would never see them again, a fact compounded by a second evacuation. It left a mark that changed the person I grew into.

But I was lucky: my parents were diplomats for the US government. The moment we were in danger, we were whisked out of the country. We never dealt with the aftermath. The chaos of political turmoil, of civil war, was left to others.

Watching Flee, a documentary about an Afghani immigrant who flees not once, but twice, to get to Europe, I saw someone not as lucky.

Centered around Amin Nawabi, a pseudonym, this animated documentary explores his childhood in Kabul. Similar to Waltz With Bashir, a documentary about the Sabra-Shatila massacres told from the perspective of an Israeli soldier, Flee uses its animation to soften the blow of its subject matter and connect with a wider audience. And similar to Waltz, when Flee, switches to real-life footage, the effect is powerful (cathartic in Flee’s case, horrifying in Waltz’s).

From a very early age, Amin realizes that he is different from everyone else. Amin is gay. In 1990s Afghanistan, gay people are treated as if they don’t exist. But this film is only tangentially about Amin’s coming out. The most tender, funny scenes in the film show Amin becoming enamored with trading cards of Bollywood stars and a poster of Jean-Claude Van Damme from the movie Bloodsport—some of the film’s only respites from the trials to come.

At the end of the civil war, as the Taliban take over the government, Amin’s father, a high-ranking Afghani official, is disappeared. In fear for their lives, the family makes their first escape to Moscow. Following the Soviet collapse in the 1990s, Russia was a dangerous place to live, particularly for refugees. So, with the help of Amin’s brother who lives in Europe, the family tries to escape to another, better life.

This is where the story of Flee is at its most utilitarian for a Western audience. We watch multiple attempts by the family to escape to the West. Amin’s sisters are stuffed inside a shipping container on a freighter, permanently scarred by their journey. Amin, his brother, and mother take another boat. They are captured by Estonian police and put in a detention center for a year before being sent back to Moscow, where they must try and escape again.

The catalogued experience of a refugee is not hard for any of us to learn about. You’ve heard about the Calais camps. And if you haven’t, you’ve heard about the refugee camps in Greece. Or the boats filled with refugees coming from Cuba. Or the Syrian migrant crisis. The best documentaries make us feel the experience we’re watching.

Courtesy of Ahmed akacha via Pexels

Amin’s family are held in detention for a year in Estonia, living like animals in a run-down hospital. When it’s revealed that Amin’s family is then sent back to Russia, the audience in my screening gasped. It is exhausting to watch good people be constantly forced through trauma. In the more manicured version of the story, their harsh first journey ends in success. But in being sent back, we feel how beaten down they become. How it doesn’t just require bravery to be an immigrant, but resilience. And luck.

Flee makes a brilliant choice by actually using Amin’s voice. Parts of the film follow his current life in Denmark, living with his boyfriend. Amin narrates the film, guiding us through his tribulations. His tone is what struck me the most.

Were this a high-budget creation, there would be histrionics and emotional outbursts to punctuate the dramatic moments. Instead, Amin is quiet, almost inaudible in some parts. His family is played by actors who are quiet, who get quieter as the weight of their lives only grows. Having personally met a number of refugees, I have noticed that this is the tone they carry. Traumas shrink a person, rub down their edges and flatten their personalities. Few depictions of war and flight from home have ever struck this chord so well.

Courtesy of NEON

My discussion of the ending includes spoilers, but that should not stop you from reading further. The listing of events in this film do not make up its experience.

Amin, now living in Denmark, comes out to his brother and sisters. We an unsure what their reaction will be. His brother immediately drives Amin to a nondescript building. It turns out to be a gay club. For the first time in his life, Amin is allowed to fully express himself. It’s cathartic and beautiful. I’ve only cried twice in a theater, and this was the second time. But when this blossoming occurs, it just feels like a lovely side story to provide relief to the horror we’ve witnessed.

The heart of the film comes midway through its running. When Amin, his brother, and his mother are out at sea in a refugee boat that is taking on water, they are found by a passenger cruise liner. The scope of the scene, for a small-budget animated documentary, is incredible. Stories about Afghan immigrants (unless they are written by Khaled Hosseini, who I genuinely like) do not get big budgets. Being animated allows for the full breadth of this moment to awe us.

As the refugees beg for help, passengers on the cruise ship watch from deck, snapping photographs. While the other refugees feel relief, Amin is embarrassed. They’re being gawked at like animals at the zoo. Being a refugee strips you of your home, then your dignity.

A few minutes after the ship arrives, the cruise liner calls the Estonian police on the refugees, and the second leg of Amin’s harrowing journey begins.

When I left the theater, I was in a daze. I wanted to talk about it more with the friends who had come with me to see it. They were hungry, so we left the theatre and walked through the outdoor mall to get overpriced tacos down the street. It’s rare that I feel guilt over the life that I have been lucky enough to lead. This was one of those moments.

In some ways, Amin is lucky too. His family, with a father high up in government, likely had more money than other Afghans. Money enough to pay for better smugglers to ensure they wouldn’t die on a boat crossing the Baltic. He is in a relationship with a white, Danish man. His story is one that Western audiences are more primed to hear.

This film was selected by Denmark to represent their country at the Academy Awards for Best International Feature. I hope it wins. But a part of me is tortured by all the stories that will never be told.

Amin is a pseudonym because he and his family could still be sent back to Moscow, then Afghanistan. Footage of his actual face is never shown in a documentary about his life. But he is lucky because he is alive to tell his story.

Courtesy of Thomas Wolter via pixabay

There is not a month that goes by without another refugee crisis. Whatever your political beliefs, it’s hard to divorce yourself from the fact that the U.S. is culpable in a number of these crises.

The World Bank estimates that by 2050, climate crisis refugees could reach 150 million. Right now, the climate crisis kills crops, brings drought, and shrinks our coasts. If we’ve been insulated from its effects thus far, we won’t be for long. Many of the viewers of this film will see themselves amongst the kind faces of the people that welcome Amin to Denmark. That is not where this film places the viewer.

Western audiences watch this narrative from the deck of the cruise liner that towers over Amin’s refugee ship. We snap photos at their distress, gasp at their plight, and then return to our cabins to forget about what we’ve seen. Our momentary empathy is meaningless without action. We are comfortable with our spot on the ship.

With millions more refugees coming, how many more will we watch with fascination from the deck? How long before it’s us on the refugee boat, looking up at a passing ship?

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Casey Karaman is a writer, performer, improviser, and teacher who has worked with the Washington Improv Theater. He has performed in multiple theater productions, most recently in Second City's production...